“What if we hit the bridge?”

Der PeLiKaN's original mast, bent in two directions, starboard spreader snapped, immediately after the incident.

Der PeLiKaN’s original mast, immediately after the incident: bent in two directions, starboard spreader snapped, roller furler disabled. -Photo by Caitlin Keller

Five years ago today, an accident occurred that etched itself indelibly in my mind and changed my life for the following 16 months.

On August 7, 2009, at approximately 9:50 AM, the regional Sea Scout Training Vessel (SSTV) der PeLiKan, collided with the Kent Narrows Drawbridge. This was in the middle of my scouts’ second annual Long Cruise, during which we were to spend seven days aboard the 47′ Morgan ketch, sailing the Chesapeake Bay.

As we approached the bridge, our other adult leaders were on deck, so I had popped down below to fetch my purse, because I planned to take our scouts for ice cream after we docked on the other side of the bridge. I was in the aft cabin when, suddenly, there was a horrible sound of impact as the bow lifted. I dropped the purse and grabbed my PFD when came another noise and the bow crashed down, throwing the stern upward. My mind was flooded with a terrifying image of the boat coming apart, dropping my scouts into the water, the strong tide going out, motor boats all over, and I thanked goodness we are so strict about wearing PFDs!

As I swung up the companionway ladder, I was unnerved to see that the bridge footing was the only thing visible from the galley portlight. Once on deck, I made a quick assessment of the situation, noting that all scouts were safe and accounted for, the boat was not going to sink, but she had sustained some crippling damage. We needed to pull over to the dock immediately on the other side of the bridge. Once tied up there, one of our adults pulled together a work crew of scouts, as well as a nearby ex-Marine who said he had grown up sailing.

Half of my scouts were highly upset by the incident. One was “so mad I could punch a baby!” Another kept asking, “CanIcallmymomandtellherwhathappend CanIcallmymomandtellherwhathappend?” A third was kneeling on the cockpit deck and banging his head on the bench seat. The scout who had been at the wheel was standing on the dock, still as a statue. The other four scouts were already working as a repair team under direction of the commodore. I directed the first upset scout to breathe and calm down, told the second one to give me his cell phone, and turned my attention to the scout in the cockpit, who was still banging his head.

Kneeling on the deck next to him, I put my head down on the bench seat and began to rub his back as I asked him what was going on. He had come aboard for the second half of the cruise, and was in despair over what happened and afraid that it had ruined everything. I had come to understood that the teen was a person who likes everything predictable and laid out–and, to him, this event had been like a bomb going off. I asked the scout to focus on the facts that we had right then: the boat was damaged, we did not yet know the full extent of the damage, we did not yet know what was going to happen, we did know that nobody was injured, and we could be thankful for the latter. I told him that, by focusing on Horrible Things That MIGHT Happen, he was engaging in something called “catastrophizing,” which was neither productive or healthy. Then I suggested that he might do better to focus on doing something helpful, such as making sandwiches for the repair crew, but he declined. Since he had a better grip on himself, I turned toward the scout who had been at the wheel when the accident occurred.

The teen was still standing alone on the dock, as if frozen in place. Seeing the expression on his face, I could tell that he was feeling shock, disbelief, and horror, among other things. Setting aside scouting protocol and putting on a “mom” hat, I simply asked, “Do you need a hug?” The scout threw his arms around me, almost collapsing into me as he wailed, “YES!” and began to cry in great sobs. I let him release it for a couple of minutes, because pent up emotion is unhealthy.

When his crying let up a little, I began to rub his back and talk to him in a soothing tone, telling him that it was an accident, that boats can be fixed, that nobody was hurt, and that was a great thing. I reminded him that we are a Sea Scout ship, a unit, that we were all in this together, and that, somehow, everything would work out alright in the end. The scout stopped crying, stood taller, wiped his eyes, and seemed to feel better, so I turned toward the boat again.

There, saw that the scout, who had been banging his head, was now curled in the fetal position. He needed some more help dealing with his feelings. I reboarded the boat and put my hand on the teen’s shoulder as I spoke his name. He stayed in position, but he answered. I asked the scout if he had been thinking about the things I had said, and whether he was ready to focus his energy on something positive, on doing something to help with the situation. He said he would like to make sandwiches for his shipmates.

Eric went up in the Boatswain's chair to affix one end of the temporary forestay to the top of the mast.

Eric went up in the Boatswain’s chair to affix one end of the temporary forestay to the top of the mast.

While I had been conducting the emotional triage, our repair team had been busy  securing the damaged shroud, and sending a scout up in the boatswain’s chair to cut down the broken spreader. They were preparing to send another scout up in the chair, to jury rig a temporary roller furler stay to the top of the mast. To reinforce the value of the traumatized scout’s decision to focus on things he could do instead of things beyond his control, I noted that it was nearly lunchtime and that his fellow scouts had been working hard, and were likely to be very hungry. His contribution would support his shipmates, and that was supporting the ship.

Since this scout had either not made production line food before, or was still too shaken up to handle it on his own, I took him down to the galley and showed him how to sanitize his hands, wash lettuce, slice tomatoes and take orders for sandwiches. Before long, the crew was finished with the temporary fixes to the boat, and all were heartily eating their sandwiches.

With everything and everyone settled down, I felt it was time to alert the parents and adult leaders of our unit.  I wanted them to hear from me first, before they received any texts from the scouts that might raise undue worry. Also, to let them know they should be on standby for possible changes and need for assistance. Using the number pad on my flip phone, I typed out a somewhat cryptic but descriptive message at 12:22 PM: “Crew calmd and fed aftr losn stbd spreadr against kent narows bridge”Nobody hurt in any way, but it shook us up. Efctd temp repair and headn 2 repair yard in annaplis. All othr plans in air 4 now.”

Somewhere in that mix of events, the mood was lightened when a scout brought up reference to one of his fellows, who would often ask silly the same questions, like, “what if we left somebody ashore?” My response to these had always been a silly answer, like, “we’ll make you swim back to get them.” The scout of silly questions was not on this cruise, but his shipmate thought of him, and his face brightened as he noted, “Now we can tell Adam what happens when we hit the bridge!” Everybody laughed and  made jokes about what we would tell him.

The flotilla commodores had been in contact by phone, and they determined that the best plan was not to return to Baltimore, but to motor to the repair yard in Annapolis, so that is what we did. There, the scouts unbent the mainsail, the commodore aboard giving the scouts lessons in proper folding technique as they flaked it on the dock. Meanwhile, I coordinated with parents and worked out an entirely new transportation plan for coming home a day early and from a different location. The accident had become a turning point for my scouts, who acted more like a team than they had before. Much of that team spirit remained through the following day, with better participation and cooperation, scouts making group decisions about changing plans to deal with our new situation, and with their remarkably thorough clean-up of the boat, executed with a positive attitude that made me proud.

In the following days, the commodore filed a report with the state, and we both attended a special flotilla meeting about the status of the training vessel. A survey showed irreparable damage to the main mast–which was bent in two directions–and to the roller furler, roller furler stay, and the steaming- masthead- and roller furler cables. There I also learned that there was no hull (collision) insurance on the boat, only liability.

This massive amount of damage was not covered, and it was going to cost over $20,000 to repair. The flotilla review of the matter absolved our ship of liability. However, the incident took place while my Sea Scout ship was using the boat, and therefore, despite the actions of others that factored into the accident, I understood that I was ultimately responsible. SSTV der PeLiKan is the centerpiece of the Chesapeake Flotilla, relied upon as the vessel for hands-on training for hundreds of scouts, from the region and even from across the country. The only one proper course of action was to raise the funds needed to put the boat back into commission as quickly as possible, and to that I personally committed.

Everyone in our ship wanted to know the details of the accident, so, I announced- and prepared for a special meeting of our ship. My intention was to provide that information while and to direct energy away from placing blame and toward fixing the boat. There, I initiated the fund raising effort by putting down $100 of my own money. Other parents and adult leaders also donated–a few quite generously–and the first few thousand dollars were in the kitty.

In order to make this a serious operation, I obtained permission from the commodore to start and operate the “Save der PeLiKan” campaign, buying a domain name, setting up the website, and creating a PayPal account for the non-profit that holds title on the boat. Our ship held some car wash fund raisers, some of the other ships and adults in the region made donations, and so did some of my Facebook friends, including several whom I had not met in person.

Basically, I hit up everyone I knew or met, appealing to them for a donation of any size. Also, I also garnered publication of a few of my appeal articles in the newspaper during this 16-month fundraising odyssey. Fortunately, through a friend of mine, a private philanthropic foundation had received word of the need and made a remarkably generous donation of the last $8,000 of necessary funds. In all, the effort brought in a total of $23,129.73, covering the purchase of replacements for the damaged main mast along with wiring and navigation lights, installation and tuning of the mast, standing rigging and roller furler–with enough left over to pay for new standing rigging on the mizzen and a new Windex, as well as re-cutting the Genoa.

Due to the dedicated efforts of Commodore Steve Nichols and Skipper Ken Kessler, who worked hard and long to wire the new mast and help with installation, the vessel was recommissioned the following spring, in time for the May 21st Commodore’s Circle Cruise, which was offered to top donors. With a crew composed of smiling and proud scouts, SSTV der PeLiKan and her guests departed from Fells Point, Baltimore, toured the Inner Harbor under motor power, and then out to the Key Bridge and back.

SSTV der PeLiKan's new mast goes through the Kent Narrows Bridge.

SSTV der PeLiKan’s new mast goes through the Kent Narrows Bridge.

The following weekend, the commodore and I were on the boat again with scouts from each of our Sea Scout ships, as we sailed her to St. Michael’s, MD, so our units could assist with the 23rd Annual Antique and Classic Boat Show.

Unfortunately, the cruise included going through the Kent Narrows Bridge again, after anchoring in the narrows overnight, and that gave me a skipper’s nightmare. Soon after the accident, one of the other Sea Scout leaders in the flotilla ribbed me gently by saying, “You know that you’ll never live this down, don’t you?” Others spoke words that were not at all kind, and therefore unworthy of repeating here.

Yes, I knew that The Bridge Incident would not die  easily. However, I was not prepared for the longevity, and eventually even my good nature was affected by the continuing remarks about the “one-masted ketch,” and so on, despite my having done the right thing and raising more than enough money to cover the repairs. But, at least when we tied up at St. Michaels for the boat show, some of the more kindly spirits came up der PeLiKan and admired her new rig, one of them turning to me and noting, “that’s a nice looking mast there, Skipper Seaborne.”

Recently, a Sea Scout leader in the region said that he uses The Bridge Incident as a “teaching yarn,” and that, in his ship, “‘der PeLiKan’ is a verb now, as in, “Stay under the center span – we don’t want to der pelikan the boat.’” To which I replied, in order to put things into perspective, “Yes, because, if you ‘der pelikan the boat,’ then somebody is going to have to ‘seaborne’ it.”

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